Author: Sanan SHAFIZADE
The first prestigious international judo competition in 2023 took place in Paris. The city that is going to host the Olympic Games next year hosted the first Grand Slam tournament this time. For the Azerbaijani national team, wrestling in Paris went down in history with three medals.
It is well known that the Paris tournament is not an ordinary one, as it usually hosts the main contenders for the Olympic Games usually. So the performance of a national team that wins a full set of medals at such a prestigious event can be considered satisfactory.
Meet the heroes
Undoubtedly, the protagonist of the Grand Slam tournament was Balabey Aghayev (60kg). Winning the Paris marathon consecutively for the third time in two years, the young Azerbaijani judoka demonstrated his ambitions. He defeated all his rivals—Matteus Takaki (Brazil), Tsogd-Ochir Byambajava (Mongolia), Temur Nozadze (Georgia) and Kamoliddin Bakhtiyorov (Uzbekistan)—on the way to the final by ippon. In the final, Aghayev defeated Cedric Revol (France) thanks to a decisive trick during the extra time.
Aghayev's achievement has made him the leader among Azerbaijani judokas with the most victories at the Grand Slam tournaments in Paris. By the way, in recent years Balabey has demonstrated a stable and good performance. After winning a gold medal at the 2022 Islamic Solidarity Games in Konya, he has established himself as the best judoka in all competitions.
According to the new rankings of the International Judo Federation, Balabey Aghayev has risen by three points after the recent Grand Slam tournament and is now the third best in his weight category.
The tournament's silver medallist Murad Fatiyev, who got heavier this year, hence moving up to the 90kg category, surprised everyone with his tenacity and professionalism. He has also shown himself as an excellent judoka in all his bouts.
After defeating Aydar Arapov (Kazakhstan), Paul Kibikai (Gabon), Loris Tassier (France) and Tino Renes (Netherlands), Fatiyev reached the semi-finals. In most of the bouts he defeated his opponents in extra time (golden score). In the semi-finals, Fatiyev defeated Luka Maysuradze (Georgia), the bronze medallist of the world championship, which paved his way to the finals. However, in the critically important bout he lost to Noel van Ende (Netherlands) and did with the silver medal. Success in Paris is a significant accomplishment for the judoka, who has previously won only three bronze medals at the Grand Slam tournaments.
Zelim Kotsoyev (100kg) won another medal for Azerbaijan. He defeated Cedric Olivar (France) and Mert Sismanlar (Türkiye), but was defeated in the quarterfinals by Jafar Kostoyev (UAE) and advanced to the consolation round, where he defeated Muzaffarbek Turoboyev (Uzbekistan), then Toma Nikiforov (Belgium) to claim the third place on the podium. This medal was the eighth in Kotsoyev's collection of the Grand Slam medals.
Meanwhile, a number of Azerbaijani judokas from the national team performed poorly in Paris. For example, Elshan Hajiyev, Zelim Tskayev, Nurlan Osmanov and Yashar Najafov lost the bouts in the early stages of the tournament, showing that they were not ready for major competitions yet. The coaching staff will have to analyse the final results of the tournament and will probably draw the necessary conclusions to make appropriate decision regarding the further training of these athletes.
Head coach Mevlut Miraliyev described the results of the Paris tournament as satisfactory. "I think it's a good result. The Grand Slam tournament is one of the strongest competitions. So far only two of our judokas have been able to win the tournament—Nijat Shikhalizade in 2007 and Balabey Aghayev in 2021. Balabey repeated his result in the 60kg weight category. Murad performed well. I think he was close to become a champion too. He did everything right in the finals. Had he kept his advantage to the end, he could have won with a shido. I think the end result was good".
Rashad Rasullu, Secretary General of the Azerbaijan Judo Federation, agreed with the opinion of the coaching staff: "We assess the results of the competition as good. The last time we had such a result was in 2007. Now after 16 years we got a set of medals in Paris. We should also note that the team leaders could not join this prestigious competition for various reasons. The main thing is to repeat this result at world championships and the upcoming Olympic Games. We should not relax, we need to keep working hard”.
According to Rashad Rasullu, the main focus should be on getting ready for the Summer Olympics, which will also be held in Paris. The team’s management hopes to see the men’s team win at least seven licences. Since the women's team is still in development, only two licences are expected so far.
With the three medals won in Paris, Azerbaijan's national team has become the fourth strong in team standings, leaving behind South Korea, Israel, Japan, Mongolia, Brazil and Germany. France is the first in medal standings. The Netherlands and Georgia are second and third, respectively.
Cohort of new coaches
The Azerbaijan Judo Federation is currently holding a certification programme for coaches. The final course of the programme is hosted by the International Judo Federation (IJF) Academy. 79 coaches need to pass certification exams. To make this possible, the head of the IJF referee committee Daniel Laskau, as well as ten experts of the academy arrived in Baku.
Laskau noted during the training sessions that Azerbaijani judo is well recognised among the leading countries thanks to its high technique.